A neuroscience researcher responds to Jonathan Parks-Ramage’s “The Preschool.”
There’s a famous saying, often credited to Isaac Asimov, that “today’s science fiction is tomorrow’s science fact.” Whoever said it, they weren’t wrong. The Dick Tracy two-way wrist radio is now commonplace, the Jetsons’ videophone is ubiquitous (and more compact), and stun guns are often carried by police officers—although they never say “Set your phasers on stun.”
Today’s science fiction is chock-full of ideas that are not yet fully realized, such as interstellar exploration, time travel, alien communication, teleportation, and cybernetics. But more progress has been made in some of these domains than others. Notably, astronauts have traveled (slightly) into the future—we just don’t know how to go into the past. We have also sent communications to space and are now searching for a reply.
Unlike time travel, cybernetics (which refers to the integration of our biology with machines) is one science fiction theme that is part of our experiential reality. We can already control machines with our thoughts—but only with simple commands, like those needed to move a wheelchair or play Pong. Cybernetic devices available today include (but are not limited to) pacemakers, cochlear implants, retinal prostheses, deep brain stimulators, and prosthetic limbs. Current brain-computer interface—or BCI—technologies have enabled us to use computers to decode information from our brains, such as what we have seen or heard, what we intend to say, and what we would like a prosthetic limb to do. With the continual integration of these technologies into our lives, 20th-century sci-fi writers would be surprised at how quickly humans are taking the evolutionary leap from primate to cyborg.
In Jonathan Parks-Ramage’s short story “The Preschool,” we get an intriguing peek into what life could be like when BCI technology can be implanted into the brain as an elective surgery. On a sci-fi evolutionary timeline, “The Preschool” likely takes place sometime after Johnny Mnemonic (the ability to store digital information in the brain), but before Total Recall (the ability to overwrite memories in the brain). This means the implanted BCIs in “The Preschool” are capable of, at the very least, facilitating everyday activities. Think of it as having your smartphone embedded in your brain.
At a glance, this would seem like an amazing technology that provides unprecedented convenience. Indeed, Maggie, the story’s protagonist and an implant patient, is understandably exhilarated. After all, who isn’t tired of pushing buttons just to send an email or text? Here we are, still using our mouths to talk, like a sucker. It would be nice to communicate with others or command objects with a simple thought. And it could be argued that this represents our next evolutionary step—a small but effective step—toward becoming cyborgs with telepathy and telekinesis powers. But beyond capturing the benefits of such enhanced brainpower, “The Preschool” also places these new technologies in the context of contemporaneous anxieties that are only likely to become more acute.
Take security concerns surrounding connected networks—and now plug your brain in. Any time you have access to the world through the internet, the world will have access to you. If an implanted BCI enables the use of a prosthetic limb, and that same BCI bridges communication between the brain and the internet, it is reasonable to presume that hackers will eventually find a way to become remote puppet masters. And not having control of a limb can go bad really fast. Sci-fi speculation aside, one simple solution is to ensure that the BCI controlling your body does not communicate with the BCI that has a network interface.
Nonetheless, this solution does not solve for the security issues surrounding privacy. We know that cellphones and computers are generally not secure devices. We’ve come to accept that backdoors exist, and when one is closed, a more sophisticated one opens. This means that your private data, such as conversations, locations, photos, IDs, banking information—effectively anything stored on your device—can be obtained by others. This problem will likely extend to BCIs that have access to both the internet and your brain.
Yes, there are security steps you can take to minimize access to your personal information, but the best method is to disconnect from the network altogether. This is why the Chuck E. Cheese animatronic band cannot be hacked remotely—their tech is so old it doesn’t connect to the internet. But what would you do to “disconnect” a BCI that is implanted in your brain? Trust that “airplane mode” keeps the data in your head away from hackers? Or, possibly worse, trust that your personal thoughts remain personal? Perhaps in the future, conspiracy theorists with tinfoil hats won’t seem so crazy after all.
Fortunately, current BCIs cannot decode specific thoughts very well. Rather, they are more adept at identifying broad emotional or attentional states. Any specific thought, such as communicating a sentence through a BCI, is a more complex process that requires volitional effort. The ability for a BCI to capture a random thought or memory, particularly against your will, still remains well within the realm of science fiction. It will be a while before the first BCI is used to actually steal a personal thought.
Interestingly, “The Preschool” takes place against the backdrop, we’re told, of regulatory and political debates around the use of BCI technology—specifically, whether children should be allowed to receive a BCI as an elective surgery (hence BCI/preschool proprietor Reid Anderson’s interest in politics). On the pro-BCI side, science would point out, a child’s brain is more malleable—this is why children can learn new languages more easily than adults can. It’s therefore likely that kids may quickly adapt to a BCI and benefit more from the technology compared to a late adopter who gets their BCI as an adult.
In a school context, a BCI could conceivably monitor the attention levels of students in the classroom. This could be used to help the teacher identify specific children who may need additional instruction. In fact, similar ideas are currently being tested in both elementary and high school classrooms. However, modern BCIs in children utilize electroencephalography, which is a noninvasive technology that does not carry the acute risks of BCI surgery. The downside of noninvasive BCIs is that the brain signals recorded outside the head are much noisier compared with recording directly from the brain. This is why implantable BCIs are being developed—for more precise communication between the computer and the brain.
But we should proceed with caution, as it remains to be seen whether the use of future BCI technology will meet expectations. It’s difficult to gauge whether any perceived benefit of the implant would outweigh the surgical risks, or the risks of unintended consequences, depending on how the BCI is used. For example, kids could be punished because their brain activity indicated they were not “paying attention” in class. While this might seem like a reasonable action taken by the teacher or parent, we must be careful how “attention” is quantified. One current way to do this is by assessing whether all children have similar brain activity. If they are all paying attention to the teacher, their brains should all respond in roughly the same way, because their brains are responding to the same environmental stimulus (i.e., the teacher). However, a child might exhibit a unique neural pattern due to a number of hardware recording issues. This would lead people to think a child is not paying attention when in fact, the BCI itself is not operating as intended.
Another possibility is that a child may be paying attention to the teacher, then take their attention away from the teacher to understand and consolidate the information they have just received. In this case, punishing a child for this form of inattentiveness could stifle their learning process. In turn, this could have two unintended consequences. First, it could lower that child’s ability to understand the content. Second, it could discourage new or independent thoughts that the child would otherwise have created. In effect, this is a more subtle version of stealing a thought. Take this population-wide and add a dystopian twist, you may find yourself surrounded by a generation of people raised to think alike.
Today, our cybernetic technology is closing in on Luke Skywalker’s prosthetic limb ability, but we’re far from a Rick Sanchez- or Borg-level integration (or assimilation). Fortunately, this means we still have time to enjoy cybernetic-themed sci-fi stories like “The Preschool.” And to learn from them, so that today’s dystopian cybernetic science fiction does not become science fact.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.